Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XLVIII

The Refuge of the Hills

Those who remember Mark Twain’s Enterprise letters (they are no longer obtainable) 37 declare them to have been the greatest series of daily philippics ever written. However this may be, it is certain that they made a stir. Goodman permitted him to say absolutely what he pleased upon any subject. San Francisco was fairly weltering in corruption, official and private. He assailed whatever came first to hand with all the fierceness of a flaming indignation long restrained.

37 [Many of these are indeed now obtainable by a simple Web search. D.W.]

Quite naturally he attacked the police, and with such ferocity and penetration that as soon as copies of the Enterprise came from Virginia the City Hall began to boil and smoke and threaten trouble. Martin G. Burke, then chief of police, entered libel suit against the Enterprise, prodigiously advertising that paper, copies of which were snatched as soon as the stage brought them.

Mark Twain really let himself go then. He wrote a letter that on the outside was marked, “Be sure and let Joe see this before it goes in.” He even doubted himself whether Goodman would dare to print it, after reading. It was a letter describing the city’s corrupt morals under the existing police government. It began, “The air is full of lechery, and rumors of lechery,” and continued in a strain which made even the Enterprise printers aghast.

“You can never afford to publish that,” the foreman said to, Goodman.

“Let it all go in, every word,” Goodman answered. “If Mark can stand it, I can!”

It seemed unfortunate (at the time) that Steve Gillis should select this particular moment to stir up trouble that would involve both himself and Clemens with the very officials which the latter had undertaken to punish. Passing a saloon one night alone, Gillis heard an altercation going on inside, and very naturally stepped in to enjoy it. Including the barkeeper, there were three against two. Steve ranged himself on the weaker side, and selected the barkeeper, a big bruiser, who, when the fight was over, was ready for the hospital. It turned out that he was one of Chief Burke’s minions, and Gillis was presently indicted on a charge of assault with intent to kill. He knew some of the officials in a friendly way, and was advised to give a straw bond and go into temporary retirement. Clemens, of course, went his bail, and Steve set out for Virginia City, until the storm blew over.

This was Burke’s opportunity. When the case was called and Gillis did not appear, Burke promptly instituted an action against his bondsman, with an execution against his loose property. The watch that had been given him as Governor of the Third House came near being thus sacrificed in the cause of friendship, and was only saved by skilful manipulation.

Now, it was down in the chain of circumstances that Steve Gillis’s brother, James N. Gillis, a gentle-hearted hermit, a pocket-miner of the halcyon Tuolumne district — the Truthful James of Bret Harte — happened to be in San Francisco at this time, and invited Clemens to return with him to the far seclusion of his cabin on Jackass Hill. In that peaceful retreat were always rest and refreshment for the wayfarer, and more than one weary writer besides Bret Harte had found shelter there. James Gillis himself had fine literary instincts, but he remained a pocket-miner because he loved that quiet pursuit of gold, the Arcadian life, the companionship of his books, the occasional Bohemian pilgrim who found refuge in his retreat. It is said that the sick were made well, and the well made better, in Jim Gillis’s cabin on the hilltop, where the air was nectar and the stillness like enchantment. One could mine there if he wished to do so; Jim would always furnish him a promising claim, and teach him the art of following the little fan-like drift of gold specks to the nested deposit of nuggets somewhere up the hillside. He regularly shared his cabin with one Dick Stoker (Dick Baker, of ‘Roughing It’), another genial soul who long ago had retired from the world to this forgotten land, also with Dick’s cat, Tom Quartz; but there was always room for guests.

In ‘Roughing It’, and in a later story, “The Californian’s Tale,” Mark Twain has made us acquainted with the verdant solitude of the Tuolumne hills, that dreamy, delicious paradise where once a vast population had gathered when placer-mining had been in its bloom, a dozen years before. The human swarm had scattered when the washings failed to pay, leaving only a quiet emptiness and the few pocket-miners along the Stanislaus and among the hills. Vast areas of that section present a strange appearance to-day. Long stretches there are, crowded and jammed and drifted with ghostly white stones that stand up like fossils of a prehistoric life — the earth deposit which once covered them entirely washed away, every particle of it removed by the greedy hordes, leaving only this vast bleaching drift, literally the “picked bones of the land.” At one place stands Columbia, regarded once as a rival to Sacramento, a possible State capital — a few tumbling shanties now — and a ruined church.

It was the 4th of December, 1864, when Mark Twain arrived at Jim Gillis’s cabin. He found it a humble habitation made of logs and slabs, partly sheltered by a great live-oak tree, surrounded by a stretch of grass. It had not much in the way of pretentious furniture, but there was a large fireplace, and a library which included the standard authors. A younger Gillis boy, William, was there at this time, so that the family numbered five in all, including Tom Quartz, the cat. On rainy days they would gather about the big, open fire and Jim Gillis, with his back to the warmth, would relate diverting yarns, creations of his own, turned out hot from the anvil, forged as he went along. He had a startling imagination, and he had fostered it in that secluded place. His stories usually consisted of wonderful adventures of his companion, Dick Stoker, portrayed with humor and that serene and vagrant fancy which builds as it goes, careless as to whither it is proceeding and whether the story shall end well or ill, soon or late, if ever. He always pretended that these extravagant tales of Stoker were strictly true; and Stoker —“forty-six and gray as a rat”— earnest, thoughtful, and tranquilly serene, would smoke and look into the fire and listen to those astonishing things of himself, smiling a little now and then but saying never a word. What did it matter to him? He had no world outside of the cabin and the hills, no affairs; he would live and die there; his affairs all had ended long ago. A number of the stories used in Mark Twain’s books were first told by Jim Gillis, standing with his hands crossed behind him, back to the fire, in the cabin on jackass Hill. The story of Dick Baker’s cat was one of these; the jaybird and Acorn story of ‘A Tramp Abroad’ was another; also the story of the “Burning Shame,” and there are others. Mark Twain had little to add to these stories; in fact, he never could get them to sound as well, he said, as when Jim Gillis had told them.

James Gillis’s imagination sometimes led him into difficulties. Once a feeble old squaw came along selling some fruit that looked like green plums. Stoker, who knew the fruit well enough, carelessly ventured the remark that it might be all right, but he had never heard of anybody eating it, which set Gillis off into eloquent praises of its delights, all of which he knew to be purely imaginary; whereupon Stoker told him if he liked the fruit so well, to buy some of it. There was no escape after that; Jim had to buy some of those plums, whose acid was of the hair-lifting aqua-fortis variety, and all the rest of the day he stewed them, adding sugar, trying to make them palatable, tasting them now and then, boasting meanwhile of their nectar-like deliciousness. He gave the others a taste by and by — a withering, corroding sup — and they derided him and rode him down. But Jim never weakened. He ate that fearful brew, and though for days his mouth was like fire he still referred to the luscious health-giving joys of the “Californian plums.”

Jackass Hill was not altogether a solitude; here and there were neighbors. Another pocket-miner; named Carrington, had a cabin not far away, and a mile or two distant lived an old couple with a pair of pretty daughters, so plump and trim and innocent, that they were called the “Chapparal Quails.” Young men from far and near paid court to them, and on Sunday afternoons so many horses would be tied to their front fence as to suggest an afternoon service there. Young “Billy” Gillis knew them, and one Sunday morning took his brother’s friend, Sam Clemens, over for a call. They went early, with forethought, and promptly took the girls for a walk. They took a long walk, and went wandering over the hills, toward Sandy Bar and the Stanislaus — through that reposeful land which Bret Harte would one day light with idyllic romance — and toward evening found themselves a long way from home. They must return by the nearest way to arrive before dark. One of the young ladies suggested a short cut through the Chemisal, and they started. But they were lost, presently, and it was late, very late, when at last they reached the ranch. The mother of the “Quails” was sitting up for them, and she had something to say. She let go a perfect storm of general denunciation, then narrowed the attack to Samuel Clemens as the oldest of the party. He remained mildly serene.

“It wasn’t my fault,” he ventured at last; “it was Billy Gillis’s fault.”

“No such thing. You know better. Mr. Gillis has been here often. It was you.”

“But do you realize, ma’am, how tired and hungry we are? Haven’t you got a bite for us to eat?”

“No, sir, not a bite — for such as you.”

The offender’s eyes, wandering about the room, spied something in a corner.

“Isn’t that a guitar over there?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, it is; what of it?”

The culprit walked over, and taking it up, tuned the strings a little and struck the chords. Then he began to sing. He began very softly and sang “Fly Away, Pretty Moth,” then “Araby’s Daughter.” He could sing very well in those days, following with the simpler chords. Perhaps the mother “Quail” had known those songs herself back in the States, for her manner grew kindlier, almost with the first notes. When he had finished she was the first to ask him to go on.

“I suppose you are just like all young folks,” she said. “I was young myself once. While you sing I’ll get some supper.”

She left the door to the kitchen open so that she could hear, and cooked whatever she could find for the belated party.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05